In an unflinching article last week, The New York Times chronicled the history of U.S. policy towards Syria over the last two and a half years. It is an unflattering portrait of President Obama's many missed – and dismissed – opportunities in Syria, leading to today's all-too-predictable outcome: the survival of President Bashar al-Assad's rule more than two years after Obama publicly demanded that the Syrian dictator step down. Indeed, a former senior White House official lamented to the Times, "We spent so much damn time navel gazing, and that's the tragedy of it."
As U.N. weapons inspectors work with the Assad regime to implement the controversial U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal, the process of international bureaucracies has replaced U.S. policy towards Syria, at least for now. For Obama, the crisis – which is to say, his crisis of having to face strong pressure to use force after the Assad regime repeatedly crossed his "red line" and used chemical weapons – thus has been averted. But for everyday Syrians, for moderate anti-Assad rebels and for U.S. allies in the Middle East, the crisis is still worsening because America's current approach to Syria leaves untouched many fundamental problems.
First, the U.S.-Russian deal has removed – for now – the biggest danger to the Assad regime's survival, and therefore the biggest incentive for the Syrian dictator to compromise: America's looming threat to use military force. In a recent interview with a pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper, Assad said he did not regret agreeing to the U.S.-Russian framework for the elimination of his regime's chemical weapons, arguing that his military has become more reliant on ballistic missiles and other conventional arms.
Instead, the Syrian dictator said surrendering his chemical weapons bought him something more valuable: the removal of U.S. threats to use military force against his regime. In effect, the U.S.-Russian deal has told Assad that indiscriminate violence against Syrian rebels and non-combatants is tolerable – so long as it's perpetrated with conventional weapons.
Second, the U.S.-Russian deal does nothing to stop the Assad regime's use of conventional arms, which have killed far more people than chemical weapons. The United States estimates that the Syrian dictatorship's worst chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 people in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013. In contrast, fighting with conventional arms has killed most of the estimated 115,000 Syrians who have died since March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While large-scale uses of chemical weapons appear to have halted, Syrian military forces, with help from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies, are continuing to wage a brutal, indiscriminate and escalating conventional campaign to preserve and expand the Assad regime's hold on power. What's worse, the violence is all but certain to continue so long as the Syrian dictator remains in power.
Third, the U.S.-Russian deal, which relies on the Syrian dictatorship's cooperation, has made it hard to compel Assad to step down. Assad – no longer facing a looming threat of U.S. military force against his regime thanks to the U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons – has defiantly rejected any calls to step down, and now even talks of running in Syria's (dictatorship-run) presidential election in 2014.
A key U.S. and allied goal for the planned international talks in Geneva in November is to negotiate a peaceful transition from the current Syrian dictatorship to a post-Assad government, but it is uncertain whether these talks will even occur. The Syrian Opposition Council, a grouping made up of civilians leading the expatriate anti-Assad movement, has resisted attending the Geneva talks if there's any chance negotiations will enable Assad to hold on to power. Amid the Syrian Opposition Council's reluctance to attend, senior officials in the U.S. State Department are reportedly urging Secretary of State John Kerry to call off the talks, with one official quoted as saying, "The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary."
Fourth – and perhaps most importantly – the U.S.-Russia deal does nothing to roll back growing safe havens in Syria for terrorists who pose long-term threats to the security of the United States and its partners in the Middle East. The failure of America and its allies to empower moderate rebels has enabled terrorist groups aligned with al-Qaida and other anti-Assad extremists to carve out territory in Syria that could be used to plot terror attacks across the world.
At the Foreign Policy Initiative's annual forum in Washington D.C., Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, recently said, "We said after 9/11 no more safe havens, we are never going to allow it. What we have happening in Syria today is the development of maybe the largest safe haven, without our ability to conduct operations, that we have ever seen." Observing that "the numbers of foreign fighters [in Syria] exceeds the number of foreign fighters we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan," he warned:
When it is over, these people will be combat trained and combat hardened, and they are going to want to go home–which means we are going to have a wave of individuals who are committed [and] who have training that we have not seen before in Europe, and by the way, the United States as well.
The U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Assad's chemical weapons leaves untouched still other fundamental problems, such as the crushing burden of Syrian refugees now impose on important U.S. regional partners like Jordan and Turkey, spillover violence into Lebanon and Iraq and Iran's growing influence in the region. While President Obama and his current advisers may believe that they have won a political victory by forestalling military intervention in Syria, they have few laurels to rest on.
It's time to stop navel gazing. If President Obama won't take action to halt Assad's conventional aggression and roll back Syria's growing terrorist safe havens, then he needs to genuinely empower those who will – namely, Syria's moderate armed opposition. And he needs to do that now, before that opportunity also passes.
Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative. Robert Zarate is the director of FPI. Robert Zarate is policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.